The Bitter Cold

Here is a fictional bowhunting tale that I wrote many years ago. I wrote it when I was still in my twenties. Needless to say, growing old means something totally different to me now in my early fifties, than it did back then. However, I think the younger me had a good grasp on the topic and how aging relates to bowhunting. I pray that when my time comes, I’m able to savor that “last hunt” like the character in this story does. Only time will tell. So, pull a chair up beside the fireplace, pour yourself a cold beverage and enjoy.

The snow crunched under the old man’s feet.  The sun cast its coruscating radiance on the snow, half blinding the man as he trudged through the field.  A rabbit escaped from a nearby brush pile and as the wind picked up, the man paid careful attention to which way it blew.  It was coming from the northwest, blowing directly in his face, exactly how he wanted it.  This would allow him to hunt the buck he had been chasing for the past three years.  He had, on many occasions, seen the immense whitetail from his treestand.  However, each time the deer had outwitted the bowhunter.  Not this time.  With his longbow in hand, the old man had chosen to still-hunt, much like he did when he was in his adolescence.  He desired this hunt to be special, as it would be his last.  The old man’s body was being slowly eaten away on the inside by the damn cancer and he knew his remaining days on this earth were dwindling.

As he verged upon the woods, the memory of that horrid day in the doctor’s office, eight months ago, came back to haunt him.  It sent a shudder down his spine.

“How much longer do I have?” the old man had asked the physician.

Knowing the old man to be a fervent bowhunter, the doctor said that he would be fortunate to partake of the upcoming deer season.  His body was indeed torn up with pain.  It had managed to keep him from hunting thus far.  That is, until today.  He had lived longer than the doctor had anticipated, and the old man knew that every day he woke up now was another unexpected gift from the big man in the sky.  The pain was getting worse, but he refused to die without carrying his longbow into the woods one more time.  Despite her protests his wife knew that he was terribly stubborn, so she reluctantly packed him a sandwich for the drive and filled his thermos with coffee.  A soft kiss on his cheek, a nervous smile and a sincerely spoken “Good luck” was her way of giving in to his need to hunt.  So here he was alone, walking towards the beloved forest that he had hunted for the past forty years.

The old man jumped the only partially frozen creek and stopped to catch his breath.  He looked along its banks, checking for indications of wildlife.  There were traces of many animals.  Raccoon and deer tracks were abundant.  He could see where a coyote had walked along the embankment, possibly searching for unpretentious prey.  Suddenly, the tracks the man had been fervently seeking were there.  Pressed deep within the snow, the spoor of the large buck was easily discernible.  Following the trail, the man could envision the buck’s morning promenade.  It had paused just long enough to taste the cold water from the flowing stream.  Then it had left the edge of the creek and moved towards the woods, once again pausing, this time to feed on some of the corn that the farmer had left standing before finally resuming to the timber.

The old man advanced towards the woods silently, permitting his eyes to slowly scan the forest.  A red squirrel scampered up a large oak, seeking safety in the uppermost reaches of the tree.  A pair of cardinals flew by, not noticing the gentleman.  The hunter took one step into the forest and stopped.  He inhaled deeply and seized a moment to view the landscape.  For a true woodsman, the forest is home.  The man suddenly felt a great inner peace.  All thoughts of the chaos in his body were forgotten.  Just the mere glimpse of the forest was more healing than any radiation the doctors could offer.

Normally, the old man would walk straight through the center of the woods to his stand.  However, this time he had other intentions.  He walked slowly along the inside edges of the forest, leaving the thick interior undisturbed.

“He’s in there.” the old man uttered to himself.  He knew the buck well, but he wouldn’t let his over-confidence take control of him.

It wasn’t long before the old man spied the trail he was searching for.  The trail, if one could call it that, was barely visible.  If it had not been for the snow, the path would be undetectable upon the forest floor.  It was the walkway of a single deer, an animal that was extremely cautious.  The old man knew this trail belonged to his prey, as he had seen the grand whitetail walk it before.  The path ran adjacent to his treestand, but the buck had an uncanny way of sensing when the old man was occupying his perch.  Therefore, the hunter had decided in advance to still-hunt his way into the woods and find a site for an ambush on the ground, along the buck’s avenue.

The wise hunter removed an arrow from his backquiver, while still scanning the path for more sign of the antlered prince.  He then looked up from the trail and admired the cedar arrow he had brought forth.  This arrow was one that he had made years before.  Others like it had quieted many heartbeats in the past, and like the old man’s longbow, they had become sort of hunting companions.  The woodsman put the shaft in place upon his bow, and with one more glance over his shoulder, entered deeper into the forest gloom.

The woods held a silence that only an outdoorsman could appreciate.  The shelter of the standing timber provided relief from the blowing wind, while at the same time shutting out all but the most persistent rays of sunshine.  With his fingers affixed to the bowstring, the hunter slowly walked further into the dimness.  He took a brief moment to glance up at the treetops.  High in the branches of an oak tree, a raccoon was nestled, sleeping away the winter afternoon.  The old man took a moment to envy the little creature’s sense of contentment, and then continued his hunt.  He stalked in the typical still-hunting method, taking one or two steps and then stopping.  When stopped, his eyes and ears would scrutinize the forest ahead for signs of movement.  If all were still, he would continue on in the same fashion.

Soon the hunter advanced upon a likely site for an ambush.  It was a spot-on top of a small ridge, that overlooked the creek below.  By perching atop this crest, the old man could patrol an intersection of deer trails.  The path belonging to the immense buck was one of these that crisscrossed.

The experienced hunter checked the wind’s direction once again.  Finding it to his liking, he cleared away the snow and leaves from a spot on the ground, just within bow range and downwind from the crossing.  He removed his backquiver and set it on the firm soil.  Then he knelt upon the frozen earth and began his wait, with bow in hand.

Time seemed to trickle past, minute by minute.  The old man was delighted that Father Time didn’t rush the afternoon along.  He wanted the day to last forever but knew that it could not.  Even the bitter cold didn’t seem to bother him in the least.  He was just content to be there.  Indeed, even if he did not get the chance to view a single whitetail, this day would mark itself as one of his greatest.

Suddenly, the sound of something crossing the creek grabbed the old man’s attention.  He turned his head slightly to the right and caught sight of a large doe meandering his way.  His muscles, which were tense, now relaxed slightly.  It was not the animal he was hunting, so he just watched her advance.  As he observed her, she slowly approached to within forty yards.  The whitetail was taking her time, searching for food as she walked.  The hunter watched as her head lowered when she found a small morsel upon the ground.  However, the moment’s spell was broken as her head came up abruptly, eyes and ears scanning the cover behind the hunter.  The old man’s first thought was that she had apprehended his scent, but the wind feather on his bow proved that the breeze was still in his favor.  Then the truth hit him; there was something behind him, approaching.  The hunter slowly turned his head and looked over his left shoulder.  It was the object of his quest; the grand monarch had made his entrance.

The hunter was in awe as he admired the large buck.  The animal was standing a mere twenty yards to the man’s left, facing the doe.  He stood like a king surveying his wooded domain.  He wore his massive antlers like a jeweled crown.  The whitetail’s seasoned age was evident by the gray in his muzzle and wisdom in his eyes.  The old man could not decide what shocked him more, the size of the buck at this distance or how quiet was the approach.  If it had not been for the discreet doe, the buck may have gone unnoticed.  However, after three long years here he was, within bow range.

The hunter was aware that the doe was looking his way, and that he would have to get a shot off quickly.  This would be made more difficult with not only one, but two pairs of eyes watching.

Then the hunter got a break.  The male whitetail started walking towards the doe.  The doe, like a medieval peasant woman retreating from her lord, turned and began strolling back the way she had come.  With the doe facing the opposite direction, the old man realized now was his chance.  The buck began marching towards the doe, with the intent of following her to the creek.  His path would bring him no further than twelve yards from his stalker.

As the whitetail’s head passed behind an enormous elm, the old man raised his bow and drew the string back to his cheek.  The strain of the string pulling on his fingers was a welcome feeling.  The buck continued on his hike, unaware of the intruder about to take his life.  Then the same uncanny sense that had saved him on many other occasions caused the buck to halt.  He suddenly became uneasy, as if something wasn’t quite right.  The hunter, aware that the deer was nervous, realized the time had come to release the arrow.  However, something made him hesitate.  His mind began racing, trying to tell his hand to let go of the string, but something inside demanded he pause, and his muscles would not respond.

Then the buck spun his head and looked at the old man.  His eyes seemed to burn a hole straight through the hunter.  As the hunter and his prey stared at one another, the old man could not help but look into the whitetail’s eyes.  In that brief moment what he found in those eyes caused him to lower his weapon, for he had recognized the same look that he had seen in the mirror for the past eight months.  They were the eyes of a dying survivor.  Maybe it was the old man’s imagination, but he somehow knew the buck’s natural life would not last much longer.  All the feelings of sadness, fear, loneliness, and anger that he had felt since his cancer diagnosis swelled up inside of the bowhunter and he was emotionally overwhelmed.

The aged hunter just knelt there, as the cold began to creep through his clothing, and enjoyed the sight of the animal.  The buck stood still just long enough for his instinct to advise him differently.  Then he whirled and hastened back the way he had come, his hooves kicking snow and dirt into the winter air.  Within seconds he was gone from sight, and the hunter was left alone in the silent woods once again.  It had all happened so fast and was so surreal that the old man was left in a daze.

The hunter took a deep breath.  He looked towards the creek to find the doe had also disappeared.  Then he glanced skyward.  The sun had retreated before an army of gray clouds, a sign of the menacing blizzard that was approaching.  The breeze, still tickling his face, carried the sweet smell of nature’s freedom.  The old man reminisced about his hunting experiences, and a small tear descended his cheek.  To know that it was finished filled him with remorse.  Then he bowed his head and thanked God for the chance to enjoy the outdoors all these years.  With that said, he gathered his gear and started the long walk back to the truck.

That night, at home and surrounded by his family, the old man passed away.  Outside of his home, the winter storm covered the ground with a blanket of fresh snow.  Unbeknownst to the hunter, deep within the forest, a fatigued whitetail was bedding down along the creek bank.  The aged buck glanced up at the darkened sky, as if to be acknowledging an unknown presence.  Then he laid his head down, stole his last breath, and was still.

 And nature continued on.

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